Ignorance of Nature’s Supremacy by Emma Bate

Hidden away in Northern Italy, a quaint alpine village inhabited the Piave Valley. For centuries Longarone had been left undisturbed, until one fatal night on 9th October 1963 where man’s thirst for technological power and economic growth led to the destruction and devastation of entire villages and more than 2000 of their residents. The dam loomed over the Vajont Valley at 262m, under Mount Toc’s reign for four years. Throughout these golden years of rule the dam was celebrated for being the world’s tallest, producing electricity not only to the sleepy villages of the Pordenone province but to all of Northern Italy.

June 1959

Germano Morra was a hardworking patriarch to his ever growing family, possessing the responsibilities that came with this ascribed status. For years Morra Farm, situated along the southern side of Mount Toc, had revelled in the delights of long summers and relatively short winters, allowing for maximum grazing of their herds. Although the family had benefitted from these fruitful years, Germano was constantly aware of the ‘Walking Mountain’ and its uncontainable power to destroy farms, villages, and lives in a matter of minutes. The unpredictability of Mount Toc kept Germano and others alike him cautious of their surroundings.

“Papa, Papa, Papa…stop daydreaming, come and eat. Gio has exciting news for us!” Antonia, Germano’s daughter, was always in anticipation of her older brother’s visits and had grown fonder of him since he left home to study Engineering. Since this time, Gio had graduated from Genoa University and had been working with the electricity supply and distribution monopolist Societa Adriatica Di Elettricita, commonly known as SADE.

As the Germano’s sat down for their evening meal, Antonia was brimming with excitement waiting for Gio’s news to be announced. When all of a sudden Luca, the youngest of the three Morra children, came bursting through the kitchen door with scuffed knees and grass stained clothes.

“Luca! You’re late, again! One day I promise I will ban you from playing football with those boys!” Considering Bella, mother of the three children, was a petite woman, what she lacked in size was made up for by presence, most of all when she was scolding Luca. He had always been a mischievous child, and although this can be rather taxing for most parents Germano and Bella had a little more room in their hearts for their youngest son. Since Gio moved away from the Morra home it was set that Luca would one day take on the family farming company.

“What is all the fuss about then? What is the big news?”

“Well Papa, as you know I have always wanted to move closer to home and with the construction of the Dam just up the valley…”

“Pah! The dam is going to be the demise of this village! Bella, where is that article I was reading earlier, you know the one written by Tina Merlin. Ah, it’s here…listen to this Gio ‘when water will be in the reservoir, the mountain will fall down and cause a tragedy’. Really what good can come from this?”

Without waiting for a reply, and Gio knowing it was a rhetorical question, Germano continued his forthright speech.

“Only four months ago at the Pontesei Dam part of the land broke away from the mountainside causing a wave 20m high killing the site’s watchman! Who is to say this will not happen at the Vajont Dam, which is nearly triple the size of Pontesei.”

“Papa many people have criticised the construction of the dam, the majority of them from Erto and Casso whose opposition to the build has been aggravated by communist groups which Merlin is a part of, but none the less the Chief Engineer is the celebrated Carlo Semenza. This is his final project before he retires and fortunately I have been recruited as part of the engineering team. To put your mind further at ease there have been three test borings of the land to determine any weaknesses of the rock and all three results have identified no areas of frailty. I understand that you may not agree with this decision but this project will go down in history and I cannot pass up the opportunity to be a part of it!”

Bella and Antonia squealed with elation, congratulating Gio with hugs and praises, whilst Luca sat buzzing with eagerness that he now had his older brother back whom he could play football with, and finally as Germano slumped back into his chair watching his beloved family brimming with exhilaration he could not help but feel a sense of trepidation.

4th November 1960

With winter starting to creep into the Alpine Valley Germano moved his cattle further south of the ‘Walking Mountain’. This particular day was unseasonably mild allowing him to rest in the midday sun and watch over the valley below. Although Germano’s response to the dam was less than favourable he learnt to recognise man’s ingenuity to construct such a marvelling piece of architecture and grew proud that his son held a position there. This moment of solitude and tranquillity was quickly disrupted by the echoing crash as a staggering amount of the mountain raced down into the reservoir below.

Following this event, Gio and his team of Engineers were gathered for an urgent meeting.

“First of all, discussions that take place in this room are to be kept between ourselves and the company. We do not want to cause unnecessary social disruption to the surrounding villages. To our disbelief it has been proven that the three test bore holes were not drilled deep enough, Edoardo Semenza’s report of an ancient landslide within this area was in fact correct. We are under great pressure from SADE’s owner, Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, to keep two vital activities underway; to keep the dam operational, and for future disruptions to become inexistent. While I have no doubt that the dam will remain operational, it is foolish to believe that future landslides can be prevented. Finally, not only do we need to protect the reputation of SADE, but to protect the surrounding villages.” Carlo Semenza had always carried a calm disposition, however, during this meeting all pleasantries were void and his manner shifted from polite and friendly to direct and matter of fact.

“So have we got any initial suggestions?” Carlo asked with a sense of urgency.

The engineers, felt the pang of silence fill the room making it furthermore uncomfortable. The stillness was broken by a newly recruited engineer whose name escaped Gio’s mind. “Surely we can pin the mass of land predicted to slip to the mountain using concrete piles?” Carlo looked dejected with this response, hoping for a more pragmatic solution.

“Unfortunately that is not a consideration we can take, the sheer size of land that is predicted to falter cannot be stopped. A landslide is going to happen; our priority is to control how fast it occurs and understand when it will happen, subsequently allowing us to control the implications.”

Gio raised a pertinent question, “How vast are we expecting the size of land to slip away from the mountainside Mr. Semenza?”

“Calculations are currently being made; however, it is much larger than the one we have witnessed this afternoon. I propose we plan for a worst case scenario of the land moving en-bloc into the reservoir which has the potential to cause a tsunami. It might seem extreme but we all saw earlier the 2m wave that was created, furthermore we have evidence of the 20m wave from the Pontesei Dam.”

A tall, slender man standing at the back of the room announced a rather persuasive solution “There are facts we know about the mass of land; it is buoyant when the water level is high, therefore more likely to slip. If the water level is decreased the mass of land will anchor itself back onto the mountainside causing friction, this friction will slow the rate of land slipping, allowing us to determine how quickly we want the land to slide into the reservoir.” Professor Muller seemed confident with his theory and was taken aback when one of the engineers questioned him.

“Sorry Professor Muller, you believe it is possible to control the land by raising and lowering the water level? What if this doesn’t work and like Mr. Semenza has stated the land moves en-bloc causing a tsunami?”

Annoyed by the engineer’s frankness Muller tried his utmost to remain composed. “Think of the reservoir as a car, if we increase the amount of water the more acceleration there is to move the land. Lowering the water level will slow the movement, acting as a brake.”

Semenza was convinced Muller’s theory was the right course of action; however, he had no other choice. “Leopold, I believe that you have created a suitable method for our impeding situation. I only have one discrepancy, the plan is to be expanded to deal with the worst case scenario, and propose that simulation models of the landslide are created. The results we gather will indicate the potential height of a tsunami allowing for a maximum safe depth of the reservoir to be established, so in the unlikely event of the mass of land moving en-bloc into the reservoir the dam wall will be able to contain the wave.”

Following this meeting, 17th November 1960, Semenza ordered the flood gates to be opened, and as the water gushed out Semenza breathed a sigh of relief.

26th September 1963

“The reservoir water level is 245m above the base of the dam! Are you mad?! That is 10m higher than Semenza’s safe level. I understand that we have been able to coax the land 3m down the mountain but we are in the stages where it is at its most vulnerable!” Since the death of Carlo Semenza and the new ownership of the Dam to ENEL, Gio had been cautious of the people who were now running the project. He believed they were fuelled by economic gains and saw the landslide as a nuisance that needed to be disposed of quickly, regardless of the ramifications it could involve.

“Mr. Morra do not forget your position.” Alberico Biadene, the new Chief Engineer, was a stout man who did not take well to confrontation. “Now, we have pushed the reservoir levels as much as we deem necessary to allow the land to slip into the reservoir without causing a tsunami. For the last two years Professor Muller’s theory has been working and I do not anticipate it…”

“Sir! We’ve got troubling news.” The young messenger, exhausted from sprinting up the never ending flight of stairs, looked dishevelled and on edge with the news he delivered.

Growing ever impatient Biadene spat out his words, “Well, what is it boy?”

“Today the Dam Operators started lowering the water level but the land is not slowing down as it usually does, in fact it’s accelerating!”

9th October 1963, 15:14

“Hello? Morra Residence.” Although it was only ever Gio who called, Germano always answered the phone in the same manner.

“Hi Papa. I’m going to be late home from work tonight. We’ve got a lot to do so I said I would stay behind to help.” Germano noticed his son’s voice was quavering slightly, similar to when he would tell lies as child. He did not question him on it though and replied, “Okay son, well hopefully you will get back to watch the last half of the European Cup final, Luca and I are going down to Benji Velosa’s bar with the rest of the street.”

As Gio hung up the phone he observed Mount Toc and wondered whether he had made the right decision to tell his Papa what was going on. He also engaged with his conscience whether the villages below the dam should be warned about tonight’s landslide; however, the reservoir was now at the calculated safe level so deliberated he was panicking unnecessarily.

22:35 – 22:46

As predicted, Benji’s was buzzing with excited Real Madrid fans. The sea of people made it difficult for Luca to watch the small black and white television but then again it was better than sitting at home with his Mama and Antonia, who were busy fussing over Antonia’s baby. Luca, annoyed that his brother had not made it back in time, ventured out into the road. As he turned to look up at the dam, a force catapulted him across the street, followed by a gargantuan roar from the mountains. A plague of darkness fell upon Longarone sending Germano racing outside to find his son, as he grabbed his hand they were engulfed by a wall of water, debris, and bodies seized by death further up the valley.

9th October 1980

Seventeen arduous years had passed since Germano’s family perished in the disaster. The aging of his skin had been hastened by years stricken with grief, turmoil, and heartache and as he looked upon the largest grave of the disaster, the Piave River, Germano reflected upon his decision to remain in Longarone. The government had constructed a town 50km away, ‘New Vajont’, however to Germano this town represented an emigrant’s colony still holding onto the past. Much of the compensation distributed was given to those who had suffered little damage, this angered Germano encouraging him to stay in Longarone to illustrate the robustness of the survivors who were devastated by the disaster.

As the sun set behind the derelict dam a sense of helplessness rose over Germano, he believed the newly constructed Longarone was a futuristic architectural experiment, with no intention of resembling its former self, instead it was being projected into a future which had little to do with its past. Germano’s happiest memories were made in this village yet man’s desire for technological power and ignorance of natural supremacy crushed all of these, leaving a bittersweet feeling of love and loss.